Pneumococcal disease is an infection caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae (also known as pneumococcus). It causes contagious and potentially severe illness, including pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis, so early diagnosis and treatment is important. Vaccines are the best protection against developing infection.
Pneumococcal (noo-muh-KOK-uhl) disease is an infection caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae (also known as pneumococcus). It’s contagious and may cause severe illness, so early diagnosis and treatment is important.
Pneumococcal disease can affect many different systems in your body. It may result in conditions with mild symptoms like a sinus infection (sinusitis). But it can also lead to pneumonia, blood infection (sepsis) or bacterial meningitis — and may be life-threatening at any age.
Treatment typically involves antibiotics. Vaccines can reduce the risk of infection, especially in young children and older adults. Talk to a healthcare provider about the immunizations that are appropriate for you and your family.
Pneumococcal disease is the name for any infection caused by pneumococcus. One of the pneumococcal diseases is pneumococcal pneumonia. It’s the most common, severe type of pneumococcal disease.
There are other causes of pneumonia besides pneumococcus. Other bacteria and viruses, along with fungi, can also cause pneumonia. So not every case of pneumonia is pneumococcal pneumonia.
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Scientists have identified about 100 strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae. They cause two main types of pneumococcal disease:
Pneumococcus causes many infections that can be almost anywhere in your body. The most severe (and potentially life-threatening) invasive illnesses have different symptoms but involve the same bacteria. These require urgent medical treatment and include:
Less serious illnesses that pneumococcus can cause include:
Anyone can develop pneumococcal disease. Children younger than 2 are more likely to develop an infection, along with children who have:
Adults with weakened immune systems also face a higher risk of developing pneumococcal disease, as well as those who:
The time of year can make a difference, too. You’re more likely to develop pneumococcal disease in the cooler, drier months.
Pneumococcal disease is relatively common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year, pneumococcal disease:
Pneumococcal pneumonia is the disease that Streptococcus pneumoniae most often causes. While viruses cause most childhood pneumonia, pneumococcus is the most common bacterial cause of childhood pneumonia.
Many people, especially children, carry Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria in their noses and throats. It’s usually spread through droplets of saliva or mucus, even if you don’t have symptoms.
Most of the time, this doesn’t result in illness. But if you carry the bacteria (are a carrier), you can potentially give the infection to someone else through droplets of saliva or mucus when you:
Because many people have pneumococcal bacteria living in them without causing disease, it’s very hard to know when pneumococcus is most contagious. Once you begin treatment for pneumococcal infection, you likely won’t be contagious after a day or two.
Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria cause pneumococcal disease. These bacteria are often found in the noses and throats of healthy people, especially children. Illness develops when the bacteria spread and set up infection in your body.
Symptoms of pneumococcal disease vary based on the location and severity of the infection.
In the case of mild infections, you may experience pain, fever or swelling of your affected body part:
Pneumococcal disease can also lead to life-threatening complications.
In the case of pneumonia, you may have:
Symptoms of meningitis often include:
If you have bacteremia, you may experience:
You may develop an extreme inflammatory response to pneumococcal infection. Known as sepsis, these symptoms include:
Talk to your healthcare provider about your symptoms. Call 911 immediately if you or your child experiences a fever over 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit (38.06 degrees Celsius), chest pain or difficulty breathing.
Healthcare providers test for Streptococcus pneumoniae to diagnose pneumococcal disease and rule out other conditions. Your healthcare provider does a physical exam and asks you about your medical history and current symptoms.
Your provider may use tests such as:
Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics can treat most pneumococcal infections. The length of time needed for treatment and the type of antibiotic may be different depending on where the infection is or how serious the infection is. Severe infection may sometimes result in chronic (long-term) illness, disability or death.
Many pneumococcal infections are mild, but the bacteria can cause serious and potentially fatal disease. Without prompt diagnosis and treatment, it may be life-threatening. Be sure to see your provider if you develop concerning symptoms and follow care instructions so you recover well.
Healthcare providers typically use antibiotics to treat bacterial infections such as pneumococcal disease. Your provider may have to try several antibiotics because the bacteria have become resistant to certain medications (this means some medications no longer kill the bacteria).
For mild infections, your healthcare provider may also recommend:
In severe cases, such as meningitis, you may need to stay in the hospital for treatment.
Getting vaccinated is the most effective way to reduce your risk of developing pneumococcal disease. Vaccines are currently recommended for:
Talk to a healthcare provider about the appropriate vaccine and its timing for you or your child. You should receive the flu vaccine during the appropriate season. You can get both vaccines at the same time.
Pneumococcal vaccines are safe and don’t cause pneumococcal disease. Side effects are uncommon, typically mild and should go away within two days. They may include pain, swelling or tenderness where you received the shot. Rarely, you experience symptoms like muscle aches, joint pain or fever. Ask your provider any questions you may have about vaccine safety.
Recovery from pneumococcal disease depends on the type of infection and its severity. In mild cases, you begin to feel better shortly after starting antibiotic treatment. Less commonly, serious infection may result in chronic (long-term) illness or disability.
Developing pneumococcal disease once doesn’t protect you from getting it again. Vaccination is very effective, and the best way to avoid the disease, though vaccines can’t provide 100% protection.
Only take antibiotics if your provider prescribes them, and always finish the entire course. Most people don’t develop the disease after exposure to someone with an infection.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Pneumococcal disease can sound scarier than it is. Early diagnosis and antibiotics help you get better, and usually ensure that you don’t get severe complications. See your healthcare provider if you start having worrisome symptoms so you can get treatment right away. You can also protect yourself and your loved ones from pneumococcal disease by taking one important step — getting the pneumococcal vaccine. Ask a healthcare provider about how vaccination can keep you and your loved ones healthy and safe.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/27/2022.
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